Socrates: The Examined Life

“Socrates (470-399 BC) was a loyal soldier in the Peloponnesian war fought against Sparta. Battle hardened and ardent, Socrates made it his mission to question why Athenians had lost to Sparta in this war of attrition. So Socrates didn’t have his head in the clouds as Aristophanes depicted. Athens was utterly defeated into submission and afflicted. They had all the advantages. Their naval fleet, they believed, had the power to make even the Spartans cower. However, the Spartan’s toppled Pericles’ Athens. Through that loss, Socrates, with both feet on the ground, looked away from the physical world and turned philosophy inward toward the nature of human nature, and sought to look into hearts and minds of his fellow Athenians, and press on to inquire in the face of all that is dire. He began to question the very bedrock of what was left of the once great Athenian empire. He wondered and fastened: where did we go wrong? Was it in our child rearing? Was it in our way of governance? Was it our leaders?

A dear friend of his went to the Oracle to ask if there was any wiser man than Socrates, and the Pythian prophetess answered there was no man wiser. Dumbfounded by this answer, Socrates, knowing that he in fact knew nothing at all, begun to ask people prodding questions. He asked artisan, politicians, and sophists what wisdom they have learned from mastering their trade. This is the man who all that came before him are named pre-Socratic. His method of inquiry was called the elenchus.”

“What’s the elenchus?” Daniel asked.

The elenchus consisted of Socrates trying to draw out the answers from his interlocutors to dispel ideas that are self-contradicting and realize one’s ignorance. and then begin to gradually come to a higher stage of knowledge. This method is a testament to his pained patience, because the elenchus would only get his interlocutors as far as they were prepared to go. Let me repeat that, what his interlocuters learned depended on how willing they were to examine their own cherished beliefs. It is done by asking probing questions in a guided way so that the person comes to his or her own conclusion. Socrates wouldn’t tell his interlocutors whether a, b, and c is right or wrong–this would create confrontation. Instead, he would ask them about a, b, and c, and ask them about this position or that position. He would suggest new ideas, but he remain neutral and focus primarily on questions. Following this method means that you’ve become a midwife, helping others give birth to ideas.

“I still don’t understand what that means. Why does whomever Socrates is talking to determine the depth of the conversation?”

“To further explain, Socrates believed in a recollection theory where people already have true knowledge, but living on earth, their souls are buried by what the ears and eyes pick up. Therefore, they have trouble recollecting their true knowledge because of earthly distractions. Furthermore, the elenchus, otherwise known as the dialectic, encouraged the interlocutor to think on their own, so it was an active way for others to engage–so to come to their own conclusions. Socrates never himself admits true knowledge. Instead, when pressed for answers on true wisdom, or when given false wisdom he replies with socratic irony.”

“What was Socratic irony?” Daniel said.

“Socrates is a riddle, and the riddle is hidden within his irony. Irony is the mask he wears all too well to hide his true self and set of core beliefs. Once you unveil each layer of his mask there is yet another mask. Socrates is the main character in a divine, tragic-comedy, but the joke isn’t on him. The joke is on us and his interlocutors, because what we learn from Socrates is to keep asking questions. Socrates wouldn’t want disciples, he wants inquisitive minds that keep searching after truth. The tragic part of this divine, tragic-comedy is that his interlocutors would often times lose patience with the old man and curse him, because he would unveil their own ignorance and they weren’t prepared for that, and often times publicly humiliated when they couldn’t answer the questions that proceeded from their own answers.  He did this to politicians, sophists, and to the inquiring youth.

Nevertheless, on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety, Socrates was sentenced to death. Aristophanes defamation of Socrates played a large part on how the people of Athens wrongly portrayed the great teacher. Socrates had been given a choice to leave, but he couldn’t let go of all that he believed and taught. Here it is written why he didn’t run and hide like a thief in the night:

I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death. (Tr. Jowett, Apology)

Leaving his legacy to the fate of the rule of law–which is disinterested reason–he watched and listened, witnessing his students sitting in disbelief and awe as his final verdict came. He was sentenced to death.

When contemplating death with his fellow friends in his prison cell he came up with two conclusions. On one side, said John, Socrates thought that maybe he could transcend this body and be able to talk to the wisest and greatest men ever to exist in heaven. On the other hand, he gives the ambivalent idea as the end of consciousness, and the pain that dissipates with the absence of transcendence. Here we witness one of the greatest teacher that ever lived deciding not to leave his home and hearth, and thereby, takes the poison hemlock. He stands straight up, takes his final few steps around his cell–so to complete the Homeric journey–and finally lays down. His final words were:

Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius[1]; will you remember to pay the debt?

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best. (Crito)

Pious to the very end, John said. His charges of corrupting the youth and impiety were trumped up charges or course. The youth had many ways of corrupting themselves. As for impiety, here we see the man pious to the very end, asking his dear friend to give a cock to Asclepius, the god of health and healing. This is rich with metaphor, because it was the healing power of philosophy that prepared him for death. What does that mean to you, Daniel?”

“That philosophy has a healing power?”

“Socrates was a man that believed philosophy could heal Athens even in spite of the war that was lost at great cost, that it could help Athens find its own returning, and steer the bow away from another great war. Plato writes that he once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology). He turned philosophies dealings of the external workings of the world inward towards humanities most intimate problems. This meant he wanted his fellow Athenians to look deep within their souls, because that is where it all begins–that’s where justice begins.

“What does the examined life look like?” Daniel asked.

“An examined life is one of ruthless self-criticism. Where one looks inside and comes to an understanding of where one’s values came from and how they came about. The examined life runs parallel with the ancient Greek command “Know Thyself”.

“Know ourselves in what kind of way?”

“In the most fundamental ways, Daniel. To know that you are mortal and the universal problems all mortals share. Problems of what we can know, and of how we ought to act and govern. These are core philosophical issues. Furthermore, he believed that philosophy, unlike religious rites, was meant to prepare one for death until one’s very last breath. It was the means to harmonize the Chaos within in order to be prepared for the afterlife rife with knowledge to acknowledge. Furthermore, Socrates was a humanist. He believed that all vice was due out of ignorance. “

“But if all vice is ignorance, then how does that explain all the horrors committed by those who know better?”

John ran his hand through his hair with a pensive stare, focusing on the table. “There is knowledge of facts and knowledge that we can only experience. There is the knowledge of all human beings are mortal, therefore they will all die, and then there is the knowledge—the experience—of the lost of a dear loved one and the long, sharp pains which it brings. It is of my belief that experience brings something so intimate that academia, in all of its facts and theories, can’t begin to understand.”

[1] God of health and healing.


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